Hi. My name is Louis, and I am an astroholic.
It all began so innocently. I had not intended to become an habitual star user, a Messier-maniac, and a lunar-lister. I mean, what rational person decides, “I’m going to become addicted to a substance so powerful, it will forever turn me into a compulsive obsessor needing not just a daily fix, but roman-candlesque ecstasies?”
Innocently, I had moved to a place that had no electricity. That’s right—no electricity. No electric stoves, refrigerators, automatic coffee makers, televisions, sound systems, or lights—especially no lights. There was just bottom-of-the-ocean-floor inkiness. No street lamps, no porch lights, no flashing neon signs, no windows lit up with an unearthly glow—there was only an ebon sky and a million stars. Actually, only slightly more than 6,000 visible to our naked eye, but any astroholic will know what I mean.
Perhaps as innocently, there had been placed in my hands a small book. How small? It fit in my shirt pocket. It had an innocuous enough title: The Sky Observer’s Guide.
There I was, under dark skies inhabited by countless glowing stars, holding in my hand a signpost to an astronomical garden of delights. Had I known then what I know now, I would have flung her into the depths of my cooking fire and burned her along with my eggs and bacon.
Instead, I opened her shiny new portals. I read her text. I looked at her pictures and diagrams. How was I to know that asteroids and nebulas, globular clusters and binary stars were so addictive?
There was something poetical in her text. I don’t mean romantic poetry with its flowery nonsense and strange phrases like “plasky,” “twixt,” or “ne’er.” This is taunt, minimalist poetry that could easily be written in free verse.
“Stellar magnetic-field lines stretch
and pile up
in front of the planet’s
as the planet sweeps through the solar wind.
This pile up discharges its energy in sporadic
Similar to solar flares.
The flares accelerate
which follow stellar magnetic lines
down onto the star’s chromosphere,
producing the hot spot.”
Oh, yeah. Lay it on me, brother.
Well, the temptation to use grew stronger. Out on my front steps, book in hand; I looked up at the stars. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I felt a rush—a chaotic, overwhelming, delicious rush. I had never felt so alive, so attuned to the universe. “Tune in. Turn on. Drop out.” That was what Timothy Leary called out to my generation. At that moment, I took the first step down his merry path to total addiction. I was in the grips of CAD (Compulsive Astronomy Disorder).
At first, I was a naked-eye user. It is amazing how heady such light dosages seemed. My nights were given to learning names (beetle-juice or beetle-geese?), shapes (how does a trapezoid of four stars look like Corvus the crow or Lepus the rabbit?), and associations (that smatter of stars is supposed to look like a crab?).
The stars seemed like nothing less than 88 dot-to-dot pictures without benefit of numbers. I would study charts by day. At night, I would sit under stars, straining to make out those patterns found in the book. It was slow going, but each use intensified my desire to “get high” on stars.
Then, after a couple of months, I could talk constellations like a pro. I would look up and say, “There’s Cassiopeia, wife of Cephus there, mother of Andromeda over there, who suppressed all motherly feelings and offered her daughter as a sacrifice to Cetus, the sea monster down there. Fortunately, Perseus, over there, was flying by aboard Pegasus, the winged horse up there, holding the head of Medusa in one hand. He saw the Lovely Andromeda, rushed to her rescue, defeated Cetus with the Medusa’s head, married the princess, and they rode off into the sunset to become constellations, where they all lived happily ever after.” I didn’t even have to look at The Sky Observer’s Guide. I was right.
I was knocking off constellations left and right, happily writing in dates in the sky guide for each new one I found. You can’t imagine how glorious I felt when I added Telescopium and Microscopium to my list. All was bliss. But something dark, something sinister lay hidden in the pages of The Sky Observer’s Guide.
I had to dig to find my old binoculars. Years ago Dad and I had bought two bins to study birds, but Mom had confiscated them when she found us studying some Yellow-headed Babysitters in our neighbor’s yard. The bins were old and boxy, but the optics were superb.
I turned them on several Messier objects: M44—the Beehive Cluster, M42—The Great Nebula, M6 and M7—two brilliant open clusters, M31—the Andromeda Galaxy. Oh, the flood of new pleasure. What had been faint smudges of light became rich fields of pleasure.
But the higher the ecstasy the deeper the despair. I was moving into the dark side of astronomy. I longed to see more. This should have warned me of how serious my addiction had become.
My checkbook was another indicator of the lesser-known syndrome I had developed—AROS (Astronomical Resource Overdose Syndrome). My Sky Observer’s Guide was no longer sufficient for my needs. Soon I was adding Norton’s Star Atlas, Asimov’s Quasar, Quasar, Burning Bright. Hoyle’s Cosmology, Burnham’s handbooks, the Web Society’s guides, Sky and Telescope, Scientific American, and a new bookcase to house all my astronomy resources.
And while I could pick out Tycho on the lunar surface, Proclus was only a bright spot through my bins. And Hadley Rille? It was beyond the power of my bins to find, let alone study.
The whirlpool was just a faint smudge of light. I couldn’t find the trapezoid in the Great Nebula. The Horse head couldn’t be found. Jupiter’s bands were hinted at, but few details could be discerned. I needed more power.
A small box arrived in a plain brown wrapper—which should have warned of the dangerous ground I was now treading. Inside was a package of pitch, containers of grit, a mirror blank, and a cutting tool. I attached handles to both cutting tool and mirror blank. I shaped a workbench from an old wooden crate. I set up shop in the garage.
Each night found me busy in the garage, working my way around and around the workbench, skimming the cutting tool across the face of the mirror blank. The sound of glass scraping over glass sandwiching a layer of grit was quite pleasant to my ears. My dad became captivated by the process. As I cut away, he built the first of an eventual three telescope bases and mounts.
One hundred hours of cutting later, my mirror was silvered, placed reverently into its cell mount, and trundled out onto the front lawn. I aimed the Double-Delta six-inch Newtonian Reflector at Jupiter and eagerly peered through its eyepiece. What a rush. This was nirvana.
My Dad was stronger than me. He never went beyond being a recreational user. Occasionally he would use the Double-Delta to observe the moon or one of the planets. I, however, was now a heavy user. My Messier list was growing along with my eyepieces, accessories, and advanced books. I studied my Alpher, Betha, Gammaw, and Einstein. I memorized NGs numbers. I debated the relative merits of the Uppsala General Catalogue of Galaxies, the Catalogue of Galaxies and Clusters of Galaxies, and the Morphological Catalogue of Galaxies.
It is sad to see a person who is fully in the grip of EACD (Extreme Astronomy Compulsive Disease). I have stopped caring for my appearance. My hair is often disheveled, my clothes rumpled, and my color scheme mismatched. I live for occultations. I glory in perihelion, apogee, perigee, and syzygy. I dream of superior conjunction, opposition, parallax, and elongation. I even use those phrases in conversation, causing people to stare at me as if I was some lunatic conversing with inner demons.
Of course, I am a lunatic. My demons have names like Autolyeus, Doppelmayer, and Herschel. They come equipped with impact melts, oblique rays, proclastics, linear graben, and ejecta.
I need help. If you have a 24-inch Dobsonian or Schmidt-Cassagrin, I’m your patient.
I am an astroholic.
I believe in a higher-powered Celestron.
I live one star at a time.
Someday, there will be a cure, but I can wait.